“Sleep is the cousin of death.”
“There is no rest for the weary.”
Our workforce and culture today communicate with language like this glorifying sleep deprivation and characterizing it as a symbol of honor.
Many folks think if you aren’t working around the clock, you’re considered a slacker.
I used to work nonstop for years.
I would get 5-6 hours of sleep a night thinking that was normal.
I would pull all-nighters on a regular basis, assuring myself I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
What I didn’t realize was, by not sleeping, I was gradually killing myself.
I would eat healthy, exercise, and do almost everything else right in a continual quest for a better me, but I would sacrifice my sleep to “get more work done.”
But there finally came a point, when I was completely burnt out physically and mentally and I needed to make a change.
I had trouble focusing.
I got sick a lot.
I couldn’t remember even the simplest of things.
I wasn’t entirely sure if lack of sleep was what wore me down but fortunately, in a time of desperation, I stumbled across a few articles on the importance of sleep that swayed me to transform my sleep habits.
One element that caught my eye was a study done at the University of Texas Southwestern medical school.
The research showed that losing the equivalent of one night’s sleep is identical to having a blood alcohol concentration of about 0.1 – placing you in a “too drunk to lawfully drive a vehicle” status.
I’ve always suspected sleep to be a passive process of helping us recuperate our minds and bodies.
But there’s been a flow of research revealing otherwise.
Sleep is indeed an active function, rather than just a resting period.
So if you’re heading to bed to “unwind” from work, you aren’t truly unwinding.
Sleep is itself work.
So if you’re attempting to solve a complex problem, and you decide to set it aside overnight and return to it the following day, that’s not not working on the problem, that is working on the problem.
So the idiom “sleep on it” is truly scientifically-backed advice.
After that realization, I started changing my sleep habits to accomplish more out of my days.
No more sacrificing sleep just to stay up and watch another episode of House of Cards, to accomplish another task on my to-do list, or to hang out with my friends.
There’s plenty of other reasons why we should take sleep seriously.
Let’s take a look.
- Sleep Helps Your Memory
One of the functions of sleep is helping you consolidate long-term memories.
When you sleep, your brain not only strengthens neural connections that form your useful long-term memories, but it also prunes out the ones it doesn’t consider useful.
Your brain makes new connections at every moment you spend awake, but not all of them prove to be useful.
So when you go to sleep, your brain starts to strengthen the connections it finds useful, and it discards the connections it considers unhelpful.
You might have noticed this effect since you were in school.
You would spend some time studying during the day, but you couldn’t remember all of the things you’ve learned.
But once you’ve slept, you could remember more of what you learned the previous day.
In fact, the sleep’s function in allowing your brain to make new connections was demonstrated through a simple, yet very ingenious experiment.
In the experiment, two groups of people were asked to learn a routine of tapping buttons in a certain order.
One group of people was asked to repeat the task after being awake for 12 hours, while the second group was asked to repeat it after sleeping for 12 hours.
The people in the second group performed much better.
So getting plenty of sleep will allow your brain to strengthen the connections it makes during the day, and it will also allow it to discard the connections it deems unnecessary. (1)
- Sleep Helps Your Brain Get Rid Of Toxins
Just like every other organ in your body, your brain has to eat.
And when your brain eats, it produces some by-products.
Other by-products are produced from the brain’s activity, and they accumulate in the brain during the day.
But one of the most important discoveries in recent years shows that the brain increases its ability to clean itself when you’re sleeping.
Your brain has its own lymphatic system which removes toxins and makes sure nothing foreign comes in contact with your brain.
When we sleep, the space between our brain cells expands.
This allows our lymphatic system to clean up all the debris through the cerebral fluid.
Perhaps the most important thing about this cleaning process is that it can remove the beta-amyloid proteins that act as a precursor to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Getting enough sleep will help your brain clean itself, lowering the chances of developing Alzheimer’s. (2)
- Sleep Influences Your Creativity
Our creativity is greatly influenced by sleep.
No, this won’t only affect sculptors and painters.
We use creativity every day.
In fact, most of the times we come up with an ingenious solution to a problem, whether it’s a mathematical one or a physical one, we use the creative parts of our brains.
Divergent thinking is our ability to think outside the box.
When people have to pass a fence, they will look for a gate.
Well, the creative way to solve this problem would be to jump over the fence or cut a hole into it.
Of course, this is an oversimplification of creative thought, but it’s a good visual example.
When we are sleep-deprived, our brain loses the ability to think creatively.
A study showed that people who were awake for 32 hours performed much worse at divergent thinking tests.
Their thoughts lost their flexibility and fluency, and some even lost their originality.
Instead of thinking about a new solution for every problem, they tried using the same solution for all of them.
On the other hand, people who got a good nights’ sleep were more successful at figuring out a hidden pattern than those who were sleep deprived.
So if you want to be creative and come up with innovative solutions more often, make sure you get enough sleep. (3)
- Sleep Is Important For Cognition
Most of us don’t need flashy scientific studies to learn that the lack of sleep can incapacitate our cognitive abilities and productivity.
We experienced it ourselves.
Sleep deprivation affects all aspects of our cognition, from decision-making to attention.
This is why being sleep-deprived when you’re driving is very dangerous.
Even though for many of us driving is almost a second nature, and we do it with some kind of automatism, it’s still a very complex process.
When we’re driving, our brain has to focus on multiple things at once.
It has to coordinate our hand and feet movements, it has to be aware of everything we see, and it has to be receptive to everything that goes on around us.
This is why people who are sleep-deprived are more likely to be involved in an accident.
Sleep deprivation affects your cognitive function, and your brains aren’t able to register everything that’s going on, or is slow to do so.
Sleep deprivation also has a negative impact on your working memory and attention.
Scientists recommend you sleep at least 7-9 hours a night for optimal recovery.
People who voluntarily slept 2 hours less than their usual schedule performed worse in certain tasks that involved short-term memory and attention than they did when they followed their normal circadian rhythm. (4)
- Sleep Loss Is Interconnected To Depression
Depression is connected to sleep problems.
People who suffer from depression can either have a hard time sleeping or they might sleep a lot.
But the reverse is also true.
People who are sleep-deprived have a higher chance of developing depression, or they can experience an aggravation of their symptoms if they’re already depressed.
Several studies showed that people who sleep more than 8 hours per night and those who sleep less than 6 hours per night are more likely to be depressed than those who sleep between 6 – 8 hours.
People who suffer from chronic sleep deprivation and insomnia are way more likely to develop mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
Part of the reason this happens is that our brains have a circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm is our daily sleep-wake cycle.
Most of our body functions depend on the circadian rhythm, so it’s very important to maintain it.
When people are sleep deprived their circadian rhythms are disrupted, and their brain has a hard time coordinating all the body’s function to the new rhythm.
That’s why you might sometimes need a full week to recover after losing a whole night of sleep.
Your brain is trying to coordinate all your body functions to your new schedule, while you’re trying to get back to your old one. (5)
- Sleep Is Necessary For The Brain’s Development
Having small children can be difficult, but having tired small children can be a daunting challenge.
Sleep deprivation has a lot of short-term effects in children, and it can make them somewhat difficult to handle, but it can actually affect their brain development in the long run.
Getting enough sleep is one of the most important ingredients for the growing brain.
That’s why babies, toddlers, children, and teens sleep more than adults.
Studies have linked sleep loss with higher chances of developing ADHD symptoms in children.
Other studies have shown that for children, every extra minute of sleep counts.
Children who slept just 18 minutes more had a significant increase in their school performance.
Elementary school children who slept more performed better in English and Math tests.
Sleep deprivation can also affect children differently than it does adults.
Children who were sleep-deprived showed brain changes in the rear regions of their brains, while sleep-deprived adults showed changes in their front regions.
It’s still unclear on how these differences can influence the brain’s development, but it’s certainly not good.
Since every extra minute of sleep is important for the growing brain, some schools have changed their school day schedule to better accommodate the brain’s need for sleep. (6)
- Sleep Is Important For Your Physical Health
Even though the rest of your body doesn’t need sleep as much as your brain does, sleep deprivation can still affect it.
Studies have linked sleep deprivation to higher blood pressures, increases of the heart rate and the heart’s contractility rate, and higher cortisol levels.
Other studies have shown that the lack of sleep can increase the risk of developing diabetes and the inflammation levels which can increase one’s risk of cancer.
Our bodies’ sleep-wake cycle is very important because it influences all our body functions.
The human body evolved to wake up during the day when it’s light outside and to sleep when it’s dark.
Melatonin, a hormone our body produces, is released when the sun goes down and it makes you feel less alert.
Our blood melatonin levels stay elevated for almost 12 hours, and they’re barely detected during the daytime.
So our bodies are designed to sleep at night. (7)
- Sleep Influences Your Training
Sleeping properly is also one of the first things a personal trainer will recommend you.
Not only will sleeping more help your muscles recover after training, but it will also lower the chances of getting injured.
Having plenty of sleep will also increase your performance, and you will run faster, lift more weights, and exceed your physical performances.
Sports superstars like Lebron James, Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, and Venus Williams claim that they sleep more than 10 hours each day.
So how come they are successful at what they do when they’re essentially “wasting” almost half of their days sleeping?
Well, during REM sleep, your brain makes new connections and consolidate the neural pathways it considers useful.
This will help you learn new skills faster.
Whether you’re looking to improve your golf drive or your soccer crosses, getting enough sleep will be beneficial for you.
Sleeping properly will also increase your energy levels.
Rigorous training requires a lot of discipline and mental toughness, and getting a lot of sleep will improve your focus.
Motivation and willpower alone cannot lead to successful results.
You need to help your body if you want to reap the rewards of your training.
One thing that will help your body rest better is avoiding caffeine.
Caffeine is a natural stimulant, and even though you might enjoy having an energy drink or a coffee in the afternoon, you shouldn’t.
You don’t have to avoid caffeine all day long.
You can drink it before your training if you exercise in the morning.
But consuming caffeine in the evening can affect your sleep patterns, even if you have developed a mild tolerance for it.
To improve your sleep, you can take a calcium and magnesium supplement.
Both of these substances are considered natural sleep aids, and taking them at the same time can make you sleep better. (8)
- Develop A Sleep Routine
One of the ways to make sure you get proper sleep is to develop a sleep routine.
Having a routine is very important, especially because most people believe that they can catch up on their sleep.
This is far from the truth.
In fact, the greater our sleep debt is, the less capable we are to recognize it.
Once we are sleep deprived, our brain eats itself.
This might sound like something taken out of a horror movie scenario, but unfortunately, it’s true.
When it’s facing chronic sleep deprivation, our brain gets all foggy and confused, and the cells that usually handle the waste disposal in the brain end up eating other brain cells.
This might lead to severe mental health consequences in the long run.
The best way to avoid this situation is to develop and stick to a sleeping routine.
Developing a sleep routine might be difficult at first because you will have to go to sleep and wake up at the same time of day, every day.
Maybe sometimes you won’t feel sleepy, maybe sometimes you will feel sleepy before your scheduled sleep hour.
Well, the truth is anyone who uses a sleep routine struggled a little at first, but once you’re used to it everything gets better.
A lot better.
You won’t feel the brain fogging your thoughts at lunchtime, and you won’t be drowsy in the morning.
Once you’re used to having enough sleep, your body will reward you.
Your brain will perform better, and you will find a new motivation and focus.
You will be in a better mood, and you will be able to handle multiple tasks without tiring. (9)
- 5 Tips On Developing A Sleep Routine
- Go to bed early – The best approach is to go to bed early and wake up early as well.
- Have a bedtime routine – Creating a bedtime routine will allow your brain to register the fact that you want to sleep. The routine can be simple or complex, it doesn’t really matter as long as it works. You can try flossing and then reading one or two chapters from a book
- Avoid using gadgets – Using gadgets when you’re in bed can trick your brain into believing it’s morning. Nowadays, gadgets produce a powerful light that can deceive your brain.
- Meditate – Meditation can help you sleep better. You can either meditate before going to bed, or you can meditate in bed, prior to falling sleep.
- Wake up to something peaceful – Most people don’t use alarm clocks any longer, they use their phone’s alarm clock feature. Well, make sure the tune you’re waking up to is a peaceful one. You don’t want to wake up with a boost of cortisol because the alarm tone scares you into wakefulness.
Once you manage to sleep well for a few weeks, you’ll ponder why sleep isn’t prescribed.